What is the core?
Your core is not just your ‘six pack’, it is many layers of muscles that surround your spine and torso. Just to give you an idea, your core is made up of:
- Rectus abdominis: the muscle that gives you a ‘6 pack’ if your body fat is low enough to see it
- Pelvic floor muscles: deep muscles surrounding the pelvis
- Internal and external obliques: muscles at your sides.
- Transverse abdominis: deep and wraps around your torso (imagine a weightlifter’s belt).
- Erector spinae + multifidus: supports the spine.
- Diaphragm: muscle of respiration (breathing) but when used corrected braces everything.
Ok enough big words. All these muscles are important as all of you core muscles work together to support your spine. Modern day core exercises tend to focus on one muscle (isolation). Isolation when training the core is not a good idea as the muscles should work in harmony and having just one of the muscles strong can lead to imbalance and can even cause pain. So, we want to train all the muscles together.
So, we are not focusing on strength, endurance bodybuilding one muscle what are we doing?
Building stability having all the muscles working together to stabilise the spine will prevent faulty movement and protect the spine. A great way of visualising this concept is to think of the spine as a radio tower, radio towers are kept up by cables to prevent them from toppling over in the wind having one of the cables too loose or too tight the structure can buckle and be damaged. Dr Stuart McGill has done study after study on the best exercises to train the core for maximum results with as little risk as possible. The exercises we will be looking at are the big three.
Before we start the exercises, we want to prime the muscles and mobilise the spine by using the cat-camel. This is a movement not a stretch, therefore, you must not force any positions especially if they cause pain! Below are two options in case getting on all fours is difficult. Perform as many cycles as you need. As I guideline I usually do about 4-8.
1. Curl up
Firstly, lets address the anterior muscles. Now this looks a lot like crunch or sit up, but we are not bending or flexing the spine. Flexing the spine is a quick way of putting excessive load on the discs especially when used in repetitions (some martial artists perform 500 sit-ups a day, I see a lot in my clinic with back pain due to this). How many reps? I like doing holds not reps as this works the muscles more and spares the joints. Start off with three five second holds with thirty seconds in between. Notice the hand placement, this is so I know my lower back is not moving and the natural curve is supported.
2. Side plank or hold.
Now let us look at the sides of the torso. If you find that one side is easier than the other, the imbalance is what is causing the pain. Let your weaker side dictate the duration of the hold. For example, if you can hold the plank for forty seconds on the right and only thirty on the left just do thirty on the right. Otherwise you will keep building on the imbalance. Below, there are a few options as we want the exercise to be pain free. Pick the one that suits you best. First is holding a weight in one hand. Make sure to hold both sides. If you have space, I recommend walking with the weight (this does not have to be far).
3. Bird dog.
This exercise is fantastic. As you are move your limbs through open space you are training the body to stabilise the spine. The goal of this movement is to not allow any movement in the spine and only allow movement to come from the hips and shoulders.
Below are some variations which should allow you to perform the exercise pain free. Choose the movements that work best for you.
When the reaching becomes easy, try making shapes or writing letters of the alphabet with your hands and feet. Make sure that this motion is coming from the hips and shoulders only. These movements require greater stability which is a great way to progress the exercise.
Making your base narrower is a quick way to make the exercise more difficult.
As a guideline, I would start with one limb moving. Make sure you have someone watching to make sure your spine is not rotating (easier said than done!). Then I would progress to opposite arms and legs to perform the movement. Finally, you can work on greater movements then narrowing the base.
I hope these exercises help you, let me know how you get on. If you need further guidance please leave a comment or drop me an email, I am always happy to help.